With the number of undocumented families living in Sabah, thousands of children are rendered illiterate and poor and denied the right to education. Is this what we want for Sabah, wonders Linda Lumayag.
The infamous Mindanao problem in the 1970s, when martial law was declared by then president Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and the security crisis of a protracted war between the Philippine military and Muslim rebel forces that ensued was the major factor behind the deluge of Filipinos entering Malaysia as political refugees.
Victims of war cannot choose. They were parents with young children or single and young adults who left behind family members and relatives in Mindanao in search of a peaceful land. This is not to discount the fact that the movement of people from Mindanao can be traced as far back as during the dominance of the Sulu Sultanate, based on historical accounts that nomadic sea people like the Bajaos have been roaming between islands (see Sather 1971, for example).
The formation of Malaya as a nation-state in 1957 and the eventual merger with Sabah and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaya in 1963 altered the traditional and historical free movement of peoples in southern Philippines. Before that, coastal people travelled to and from Sabah with relative convenience, which meant that no form of documentation e.g. passport or identification card was needed to enter as a citizen of a nation-state. That changed with the mapping of territories institutionalising which islands belonged to which nation-state, as a consequence of British colonial control.
Filipino refugees who ran away and entered the borders of Malaysia were granted the so-called IMM13 visa. This visa is renewable every year and allows them to stay in Sabah and to find work.
The crux of the matter is, many refugees did not even know that they had to renew this visa every year. They thought that it was a permanent document they had to retain “forever”.
Assuming that they had left Mindanao before 1980 when they were in the prime of life, when they were 20-25, by now, they would be in their late 40s and 50s. They would have got married and had children in Sabah despite the insecurities and precarious conditions of life in their new homeland.
Nothing much has been said about the children of IMM13 holders. Where are they located within Malaysia’s social spectrum? What are their current social conditions and where have they gone over these years?
During my recent research fieldwork in the north of Sabah, just a week after the kidnapping of a Chinese national in a tourist resort off the coast of Semporna, I met a few Filipino immigrants and their children. I refer to them as children of IMM13 holders who are trying to make sense of their stay in Malaysia.
These children are now young adults in their early 30s or late 20s. At least for those in their twenties, they were able to go to school when there was still no federal regulation disallowing them from going to public schools. (This took took effect in 2003.)
For Filipino undocumented immigrants, providing education to their children is the best that they can hope for. They think that learning how to read and write is a ticket to improve their economic condition. This is shown in the way parents responded to the regulation by sending their children back to southern Philippines to continue after Form Three, at least for those who could afford it and for those who had still maintained strong social ties with their relatives and friends in their country of origin.
I met a 52 year-old mother who originally came from Tawi-Tawi in Sulu more than 30 years ago. She and her six children, all born in Malaysia, still do not have ICs. While the children had gone to secondary school, not one went on to university. Three of her sons had finished SPM, with one obtained 7As in his SPM exam.
The eldest son, Yusri (not a real name), is 30, but could not find permanent work because of his documentation problem. He wanted to continue his studies but was denied by poverty. Going to a private college was never an option as it was beyond his parents’ means to pay the tuition fees.
Being undocumented did not deter Yusri from contributing to his local community. He organised the youth in the island community and started the ‘No plastic’ campaign long before the campaign in shopping malls began in peninsular Malaysia. He was also instrumental in forging youth cooperation to protect the delicate island reefs due to fish bombing and cyanide fishing – all on a voluntary basis.
His brother Khaled (not his real name) is a licensed diver, a volunteer youth leader and a self-confessed environmentalist. Their sister is a contract worker with a government outfit.
The siblings all have the capability to make a difference even if they are far from the blessings of infrastructure, good schools, and job opportunities. But this capability is widely hindered because they are neither citizens nor strangers in Malaysia and have never retraced the journey their parents had trodden years ago. Throughout their life, they have never seen the Philippines.
During our conversation, Khaled asks about the plan of the Malaysian government for IMM13 people. Is the government going to give them at least permanent residence or citizenship? What now?
I have no idea what the government’s plan for these people is, either! The question is, why could others obtain their ICs but they could not? I have no ready answer myself.
One wonders how these siblings can complain when Malaysia has already provided them space to live! It is precisely because these siblings could not afford to maintain a decent living that they keep on questioning the long delay in obtaining their eventual permanent residence or citizenship in Malaysia, and why others could secure legal documentation and some just are unable.
Since 2003, the Federal government has declared that immigrants who are undocumented cannot enter any government-funded schools. Khaled, who was hoping to pursue his university education, was so disappointed that even with his 7As, it was still ‘no use’ (tiada guna juga).
His dream of becoming a ‘successful person’ someday was dashed as there was no option left except to remain in his village. His quest for a better life is constrained by his being undocumented and poor. Coastal villages or the island communities where most of these children are situated have very limited job opportunities even if they may have basic skills such as in recycling, diving and reef protection.
The north of Sabah may have beautiful beaches and is a potential tourist attraction, but so far the region remains below the radar of both domestic and international tourists. There are very limited opportunities in the tourism sector, where young adults like Yusri and Khaled could find employment.
So what remains is a huge pool of human resources who most likely could have provided alternative services to the state of Sabah had it not been for that unpopular move to ban children of undocumented immigrants, even children of IMM13 holders, from pursuing their studies in public schools even with their outstanding academic performance. This contributes negatively to the social and economic development of Sabah, in particular.
So, now, where do we find the children of IMM13 holders? Their job prospects are slim when they are not empowered to move up through access to education. These young adults that I have met in their 20s and 30s are either jobless or employed as odd-job workers in the construction industry in Kota Kinabalu, restaurant and shop assistants or domestic workers.
The Malaysian state rendered these people vulnerable to the shearing effect of poverty, marginalisation and social exclusion since their low level of education – or no education – limit their opportunities to travel and to find work.
With the number of undocumented families living in Sabah, I would surmise thousands of children are rendered illiterate and poor. Is this what we want for Sabah? Is this the kind of labour force we need to sustain a thriving and progressive Malaysia?
The immigrant community is not homogeneous. It is diverse, multiethnic, and also largely disenfranchised. The community is socially excluded and the right of immigrants’ children to education remains a thorny yet invisible issue. Their wish may sound very difficult to grant and we continue to cast aspersions on them especially when new security threats pop up such as kidnapping, illegal trade, and terrorism.
But has the national leadership really done anything to recognise the productive contribution of immigrants in Sabah? Ordinary immigrants who provide cheap labour in the services sector and in the plantation industry spend countless hours eking out a living, in spite of the prejudices they experience.
There is no logic in saying that they must be repatriated to the other side of the border, as navigating the Sulu and South China Sea has become a way of life. It is not only for economic reasons that they come, it is also to sustain the social and cultural ties with relatives and family members who live on the other side of the Sulu Sea or South China Sea.
No amount of threats and deportation is ever effective for people who have nowhere to go except back to the sea for survival. This is only one part of the bargain.
The other part is for both countries to truly and effectively cleanse their governments from bribery and corruption and to regulate the flow of people coming in and out over national borders. Furthermore, neighbouring countries must provide development programmes for poor people to live decently and in dignity.
Despite everything, undocumented immigrants still see Sabah as a survivor island. They may have encountered threats of deportation and corruption, but nothing would have spared them from starvation and the perceived threat to life and property across national borders had they remained where they were.
Linda A Lumayag is a lecturer at the University of Malaya whose expertise includes migrants’ issues. The above research fieldwork was made possible with financial assistance from the university (ref: UMRG RPO17B – 13SBS).